These tests have been widely distributed to allow family members to visit care homes and students to return home for Christmas. Allyson Pollock warns that rapid tests provide “false reassurance” because they “aren’t designed to be used on healthy symptomless people in the community”.
As part of the government’s COVID-19 Winter Plan, care homes have been provided with sufficient rapid tests for up to two visitors per resident. Students have also been given the opportunity to take a rapid test in their university towns before travelling home.
According to the government these rapid tests have received “extensive clinical evaluation” by Public Health England and are able to provide results which are “highly reliable, sensitive and accurate”.
However, analysis of mass testing in Liverpool has shown that rapid tests fail to diagnose 30% of individuals with a high viral load. Compared with the standard polymerase chain reaction swab tests, rapid tests are only able to identify 50% of the positive cases. Both types of test involve a naso-pharyngeal swab procedure, but the standard test is more expensive and requires laboratory processing.
Analysis of the efficiency of rapid tests has been worrying downplayed by the government. In analysis documentation released by the Department of Health and Social Care, Liverpool's testing statistics appeared only in the appendix.
Lack of public awareness of the risks of relying on a rapid test could lead to students and care home visitors unknowingly putting their friends and family members at risk.
The objective of the rapid testing Winter Plan was to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 by identifying symptomless infectious individuals, but it could end up increasing the spread of the virus.